The Fabelmans and the Magic of Movies


Screengrab from “The Fabelmans” trailer.

I fell in love with movies when I was 14 years old. They were everything to me, a magical form of escapism where anything is possible. In my mind, only cinema could show you a machine gun-toting raccoon and a giant tree monster in the same frame. My love of filmmaking has only intensified as I’ve gotten older, transforming beyond a mere hobby to a career aspiration. Film has given me a path throughout life, providing direction that has shaped my world. For me and people like me, movies are more than just moving pictures, they are a part of life. The Fabelmans understands this better than almost any other film made on the subject, serving as an ode to the magic of movies through the eyes of one Hollywood’s greatest living talents. 

A semi-autobiographical work, The Fabelmans is inspired by director Steven Spielberg’s own background and filmmaking journey. Beginning in 1952, we follow Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) from the moment he saw his first film, The Greatest Show on Earth. From that moment on, Sammy is entranced by the wonder of motion pictures, inspiring him to shoot his own home movies with friends and family. As he grows older, Sammy grapples with his future and whether or not he should push forward as an aspiring filmmaker. Further complicating manners is the dissolution of his home life, for Sammy’s mother (Michelle Williams) and father (Paul Dano) are drifting apart. In the face of familial trial and tribulation, Sammy buries himself in his artform, using cinema as a coping mechanism for his own hardship. 

Steven Spielberg has long been accused of being a sentimentalist, a showman who favors spectacle over pathos. Almost all of his films are built upon wonder and extravaganza, occasionally (and erroneously) written off as cloying schmaltz. The Fabelmans exists in spite of these criticisms, functioning as an emotionally raw family drama without sacrificing the tender sensibility that makes up his world view. The script, penned by both the great Tony Kushner and Spielberg himself, contrasts that magic of cinema with the heartbreaking decomposition of the Fabelman marriage. Spielberg doesn’t neglect showing the ugly, emotionally complicated reality of Mitzi and Burt’s divorce, but somehow finds a way to illustrate the joy of his artistry in the process. 

Filmmaking offers Sammy an escape from the painful realities that wait at home. His home movies bring joy to a household rife with tragedy, for his camera finds beauty where none exist. Every shot Sammy captures is precious, regardless of the context. A camping trip gone awry becomes a perfect vacation through the images of a film. Spielberg shows us time and time again that movies can transform the world’s calamities into wonders, providing control to those who desperately need it. But there’s a dark side to Sammy’s escapism. Is it fair that Sammy can hide away, editing his latest home movie, while his family life crumbles? There’s an inherent selfishness in devoting yourself to art, yet what else can a creative spirit do in the face of such complicated circumstances? The film provides no easy answers, resulting in all the more impactful viewing experience. 

Given the emotional honesty and personal nature of the subject matter, one would assume that The Fabelmans is a joyless exercise in tear-jerking Oscar bait. However, Spielberg infuses every frame with his indelible love of life, and his passion for the craft makes The Fabelmans a wonderfully entertaining picture. This is a riotously funny movie, brimming with writer Tony Kushner’s trademark wit and keen sense of humor. The screenplay finds the comedy in the most unexpected places, with Sammy’s first kiss eliciting one of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. Beyond the humor, the cast provides the material depth and warmth, expertly traversing Spielberg’s tricky tonal tightrope. 

With his spectacular imagery and frequent use of cutting edge special effects, it’s easy to forget that Spielberg is an actor’s director. The man has always had a knack for getting fresh, nuanced performances from his cast, and The Fabelmans is no exception. Almost everyone delivers career best work, with the entire ensemble firing on all cylinders. Michelle Williams is especially strong, giving us one of the best performances of the year. 

In the hands of any other actress, Mitzi Fabelman would be a dreadful character, a grating wreck of a woman who does little to invoke sympathy. I myself fully expected to hate her given the sorrowing repercussions of her actions. However, Williams plays the part with such sensitivity that it’s impossible not to understand her motivations. She brings out the script’s empathy for Mitzi, highlighting the character’s deep-seated sense of depression. Mitzi feels she cannot find happiness without destroying her family, and the guilt eats her alive. Williams understands this perfectly, transforming a deeply flawed human being into a unforgettably relatable figure. 

The Fabelmans is a love letter to the power of cinema, in both craft and content. It’s a gorgeously constructed piece of art with sensitive performances, empathetic writing, and a strong sense of life. Spielberg understands that movies are everything to people like Sammy, and they have power to shape lives. The ability to control the images of our world is reassuring in the face of emotional turbulence, and is one of the many reasons I myself devoted myself to the art of filmmaking. The Fabelmans is the kind of movie that will inspire legions of filmmakers, and given the film’s subject matter, perhaps that’s the highest compliment I can give it.